“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
With those words, written in the upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated, Jason Collins, who played for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this season, has openly and proudly become the first active male athlete in U.S. professional team sports to come out.
The moment has been building for a while now. Several NFL players, according to reports, are considering coming out and the debate over whether an openly gay teammate would be accepted in a locker room became one of the big story lines of the Super Bowl. Recently, Baylor’s Brittney Griner’s announcement that she is gay caused barely a ripple.
Still, Collins’s first-person story, poignantly told in SI, advances the issue significantly. It drew reactions of support from political and sports figures, from Bill Clinton and Joe Kennedy to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash to Martina Navratilova — a pioneering gay athlete. NFL players like Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo have been vocal supporter of gay rights. Today, Kluwe tweeted that Collins’s announcement is “living proof that your sexuality has nothing to do with your athletic ability.”
Collins, who attended college at Stanford and will be a free agent when the NBA season ends, said the role he now has played wasn’t really part of some grander plan. Rather, the recent Boston Marathon bombings convinced him that “things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?” The sense that the time is right is one that has been building across all of sports.
I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.
Collins is a 12-year NBA veteran, and writes that his double life has been a bit of a hindrance in his basketball career.
By its nature, my double life has kept me from getting close to any of my teammates. Early in my career I worked hard at acting straight, but as I got more comfortable in my straight mask it required less effort. In recent days, though, little has separated “mask on, mask off.” Personally, I don’t like to dwell in someone else’s private life, and I hope players and coaches show me the same respect. When I’m with my team I’m all about working hard and winning games. A good teammate supports you no matter what.
I’ve been asked how other players will respond to my announcement. The simple answer is, I have no idea. I’m a pragmatist. I hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally in the locker room. Believe me, I’ve taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn’t an issue before, and it won’t be one now. My conduct won’t change. I still abide by the adage, “What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.” I’m still a model of discretion.
NFL players, when asked about the issue, always point to the question of how fans will react when their team is playing a team with an openly gay player, rather than how an openly gay played will be accepted in a locker room.
As I write this, I haven’t come out to anyone in the NBA. I’m not privy to what other players say about me. Maybe Mike Miller, my old teammate in Memphis, will recall the time I dropped by his house in Florida and say, “I enjoyed being his teammate, and I sold him a dog.” I hope players swap stories like that. Maybe they’ll talk about my character and what kind of person I am.
As far as the reaction of fans, I don’t mind if they heckle me. I’ve been booed before. There have been times when I’ve wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning.
I’m a veteran, and I’ve earned the right to be heard. I’ll lead by example and show that gay players are no different from straight ones. I’m not the loudest person in the room, but I’ll speak up when something isn’t right. And try to make everyone laugh.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said he had not spoken with President Obama, the nation’s First Hoops Fan, but added: “Here at the White House we view that as another example of the progress that has been made and the evolution that has been taking place in this country, and commend him for his courage and support him in this effort, and hope that his fans and his team support him going forward.”
Former president Clinton said he has known Collins since he was a classmate of Chelsea Clinton’s at Stanford. “Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community,” Clinton said in a statement. “It is also the straightforward statement of a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek: to be able to be who we are; to do our work; to build families and to contribute to our communities. For so many members of the LGBT community, these simple goals remain elusive. I hope that everyone, particularly Jason’s colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned.”
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) roomed with Collins at Stanford and said in a statement released by his office:
“For as long as I’ve known Jason Collins he has been defined by three things: his passion for the sport he loves, his unwavering integrity, and the biggest heart you will ever find. Without question or hesitation, he gives everything he’s got to those of us lucky enough to be in his life. I’m proud to stand with him today and proud to call him a friend.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern was asked about the prospect of an NBA playing coming out last week and cited Griner’s announcement. “We’d like everything to get the same attention that Brittney Griner got, which was very little,” Stern said. “It should be a non-issue in this country.”
The NBA has been increasingly progressive on the issue. In 2011, Rick Welts, then an executive with the Phoenix Suns, wrote in the New York Times about being gay. John Amaechi, a former NBA player, announced that he was gay after his playing career ended.
Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement released by the team: “We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”